The Landau Report Issue-203
The How, Who, Why and What
of the Bennett-Lapid Government
The usual question posed with respect to a new Israeli coalition government is – how long will it last? However, in the case of the current ‘new coalition government’, the central question facing it is – can it last? The fact that it has survived for six weeks is somewhat surprising and, in some respects, every day seems to bring new threats to its continued survival.
This issue is focused on that question. My answer – sorry for the spoiler, but this is an analysis, not a mystery novel – is that it can and it probably will. This seems very strange and counter-intuitive. Objectively, this coalition doesn’t make sense, because of its very diverse composition and the ideological gulfs between its constituent parties. It should never have been possible to create such an ‘illogical’ entity and it strains credulity to expect it to function for very long, without breaking down. But logic and objectivity are not the correct tools to use in this situation.
The rationale behind my conclusion can be summed up by quoting Benjamin Franklin’s famous statement to his fellow-signers of the American Declaration of Independence: “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately”.
In the context of the current government, it is clear to all the signatories and partners that if their alliance falls apart and the government falls, in the election that will follow many – perhaps most — of the parties in the coalition will be hard-pressed to muster enough votes to reach the threshold for representation in the Knesset. The outcome of such an election, if it is held soon, will be the return of Netanyahu at the head of Likud. The threat of their own destruction, coupled with the undoing of their achievement of deposing Netanyahu, is sufficient incentive for them to hang together for quite some time – possibly even several years.
To reach that conclusion, it is necessary to retrace how this government was formed, who made it happen, who led that process and who followed – and, no less important, how and why the long era of Netanyahu was brought to an end. Once those aspects have been considered, the coalition and the government it formed seem less illogical and it is possible to explain what this complex and severely constrained government is seeking to achieve, as well as what it must avoid, if it is to consolidate its initial achievements and realise its limited, but still ambitious, agenda.
B: Domestic Politics
- HOW the eight-party coalition was stitched together
- WHO are the key players
- WHY Netanyahu and Likud lost power
- WHAT is the Bennett-Lapid government seeking to do…
- …and WHAT is it trying to avoid
B: Domestic Politics
- HOW the eight-party coalition was stitched together
The starting point of any discussion regarding the current Israeli government, that was formally sworn into office on June 13, must be to stress as strongly as possible what an extra-ordinary construction it is. Even by the standards of Israeli politics, where the idea that politics is the art of the possible is regularly stretched to seemingly impossible levels, this must be considered the pièce de résistance.
- There are eight different parties in this coalition: Yesh Atid (17 Knesset seats), Blue & White (8), Labour (7), Yamina (7 which are really 6), Yisrael Beiteinu (7), Meretz (6), New Hope (6), Ra’am (4).
- The Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, is not the leader of the largest party in the coalition, but of a small, unruly one.
- The leader of the largest party, Yair Lapid, who is Alternate Prime Minister, has even less ministerial experience than does Bennett — but considerable political experience garnered over eight years in the Knesset and six election campaigns.
- The eight parties include three overtly right-wing parties, two centrist parties, two overtly left-wing parties and one Israel-Arab party that is overtly Islamist.
- The inclusion of an Israeli-Arab party of any sort is an historic event, possibly presaging a revolution in Israeli politics in which Israeli-Arab parties in general see themselves, and are seen by others, as potential coalition members and candidates for ministerial positions.
The first and most obvious question regarding this coalition and government is — how on earth did such an awkward and complex political construct ever come into being? Books will be written on the subject — some are probably in preparation — but for immediate purposes, the following points must be noted, each of which is at least a partial answer to the overall riddle.
A] The proximate factor enabling this coalition to come into being was Naftali Bennett’s decision to reject all the promises, blandishments and threats that Netanyahu and Likud deployed to persuade him to join them. Whatever the considerations behind that decision, it was the swing factor in enabling an anti-Netanyahu coalition to, well, coalesce.
B] Bennett repeatedly said, and undoubtedly believed, that even this problematic and cumbersome coalition was preferable to the alternative of holding a fifth successive election. This choice was itself predicated on the fact that Netanyahu was unable to form a Likud-led coalition, even if Bennett’s Yamina joined him.
C] This inability on the part of Netanyahu hints at the underlying factor behind the formation of the current government, namely the splitting of the Israeli right into pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps. A simplistic tallying of the March 23 election results shows that right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties won over 70 of the 120 Knesset seats, so that a right-wing coalition with a comfortable majority was seemingly available. But that view of the election results is a gross misrepresentation of the political reality before, during and after the election campaign.
Even more than the three preceding elections, the latest one was fought over whether Netanyahu should remain premier or not. Netanyahu’s failure, first in the election itself — Likud dropped from 36 to 30 seats — and then in the subsequent negotiations, was due to the serial splitting of the right-wing vote. First Liberman broke completely with Netanyahu, bringing down his government in December 2018 and triggering a series of elections in which he (Liberman) held the balance of power and repeatedly refused to rejoin a Netanyahu-led coalition, thereby creating a prolonged political stalemate.
Then, in late 2020, Gideon Sa’ar openly broke with Netanyahu and created a rival party, New Hope. This won six seats — a disappointing result for Sa’ar and his band of rebels, who initially attracted much greater support. But these six seats were the ones that Likud lost and are the direct cause of Netanyahu’s inability to muster a coalition majority.
In sum, Liberman, Sa’ar and —last to break with Netanyahu, but hardly least — Bennett are all committed right-wingers leading right-wing parties. Cumulatively, they split the Israeli right and brought about the end of Netanyahu’s record 12-year premiership. In passing, I would add that for several years I have posited the view that Netanyahu would only fall through a rebellion in Likud. Sa’ar eventually provided that rebellion and thereby played a crucial role, but the rebellion was actually much broader and encompassed many non-Likud right-wing voters.
D] That broad rebellion reflected a feeling that became widespread among the Israeli public over the course of the four elections in 2019-2021: Enough is enough. Netanyahu achieved much, but the time had come for him to step down.
E] Netanyahu had to be brought down by the parties of the right, but the parties of the left also had a critical role to play, albeit as supporting actors. They needed to join the anti-Netanyahu parties of the right and center in order to create an anti-Netanyahu majority. This meant that they had to consciously decide to give priority to replacing Netanyahu, whom they regarded as corrupt and hence unfit for office, ahead of their usual considerations of ideological purity. This decision regarding priorities extended to real politics, not just ideology: they decided that they would be better served by joining a government in which they would have at least some influence and could achieve at least part of their agenda, than by continuing to sit in pristine opposition and achieve nothing. This may prove to be an important turning-point in these parties’ strategies.
F] The truly revolutionary aspect of this government is the inclusion of Ra’am, an Israel-Arab party with an Islamist bent, whose constituency is mainly Beduin living in southern Israel. These features of Ra’am are very important in terms of overall Israeli-Arab politics, but they are unimportant in relation to the historic precedent of an Israeli-Arab party becoming a full member of a “Zionist” coalition. Much of the credit for this development goes to Ra’am’s leader, Mansour Abbas, who was ready to break the taboos and create a new paradigm — and who understood that there was a large and growing body of support for this pragmatic approach among his community.
However, and supremely ironically, the person who made possible this upheaval in the accepted ‘rules’ of Israeli politics was none other than Benjamin Netanyahu. For at least a year before the most recent election, Netanyahu had been negotiating with Mansour about possibly joining a coalition led by him. The fact that Mansour pursued this negotiation is revolutionary from the Israeli-Arab side, but the fact that Netanyahu and Likud were the initiators and the “suitors” in this putative partnership was the real game-changer. Netanyahu made Ra’am — and by extension all Israeli-Arab parties — ‘kosher’ for coalition purposes. Thereafter, neither no-one in Likud could plausibly oppose a similar initiative from other right-wing parties, as duly occurred.
G] The person who did the hard lifting in terms of intensive political negotiations with so many different parties, was Yair Lapid. He proved himself prepared to give up much, even first call on the premiership, to achieve the wider goals of a) ousting Netanyahu and b) establishing a government that could function effectively, legislate needed laws (starting with a state budget) and get the country up and running smoothly after the pandemic. Lapid’s efforts eventually convinced his fellow party leaders that the impossible could be achieved.
- WHO are the key players
Following on directly from the foregoing review, it is clear that of all the eight party leaders in the coalition, the most important is Lapid. He created the coalition, not just in the weeks following the March 23 election, but also — and perhaps mainly — by his work over the entire four-election period.
Lapid is running a long-distance race to achieve his political ambitions, having learnt the hard way that the sprints may bring instant success, but this is ephemeral. His political debut was dramatic, when Yesh Atid won 19 seats in its first election appearance in 2013, enabling him to team up with Bennet and impose their terms on Netanyahu. Only after Netanyahu fired him in late 2014 and Yesh Atid’s representation plunged to 11 seats in the 2015 election, did Lapid hunker down to the grinding work of building a genuine party with nation-wide branches and activists while, in the Knesset, he fashioned Yesh Atid into the leading alternative to Likud.
Yet, in early 2019, when Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi formed Blue and White, Lapid swallowed his pride and seniority and merged with them to form a broad-based party that could — and did — win as many votes as Likud. He even ceded the number one spot, and hence the joint party’s candidate for prime minister, to Benny Gantz, out of conviction that doing so would boost the new party’s appeal.
He has now repeated this pragmatic approach, by ceding to Bennett the initial period of premiership in a ‘rotation’ coalition, thereby making Bennett an offer he could not refuse and ensuring Netanyahu’s removal from office.
This move, too, should be seen from a long-term perspective. Lapid leads the largest party in the current coalition and seems well placed to grow further and become the largest party in the next Knesset, if the current government is seen as successful — and perhaps even if it is not, if Lapid can make a convincing case that he and Yesh Atid are not to blame for that outcome.
Nevertheless, Yesh Atid remains very much a one-man show and Lapid needs to attract some “big names” to strengthen his team. Among the current crop of ministers, Karine Elharrar (Energy) and Orna Barbivai (Economy) deserve watching, but the logic in favour of reconnecting with Gantz and re-merging their parties — this time, with Lapid as number one — is very powerful, despite the strained relations between them after their previous split.
Avigdor Liberman, leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, emerged as the big winner from the political horse-dealing that followed the election. Liberman was committed to the anti-Netanyahu block and was the first party to sign an agreement with Yesh Atid. This gave him ‘first mover’s advantage’ and allowed him to achieve far more than his six seats would normally have brought him. He himself won the Finance Ministry and, in addition to another ministry (Agriculture) his party also received the chair of the Knesset Finance Committee — probably the first time that the key executive post and the parliamentary oversight post are held by the same party. Liberman has already announced several measures designed to hurt the Haredim, his long-time bête-noir, but even if some of these are watered down or dropped entirely — as is very likely — he will still emerge a winner in political terms,
The idea of Liberman as Finance Minister was surprising, and disturbing to some, but given his previous portfolios of Foreign Affairs and Defence, it was not shocking. So far he seems to be doing the right things — his appointments have won plaudits from objective observers — and his real test will be to steer the 2021-22 Budget Law, with the accompanying Arrangements Law and its numerous reform proposals, through the Knesset by early November.
Looking further ahead, Liberman sees himself as a serious candidate to lead the right-wing block in the post-Netanyahu era. As usual with Liberman, this seems a very ambitious goal — but given his achievements to date, it would be wrong to dismiss it as impossible.
After all, Naftali Bennett is now premier, despite having only six reliable supporters in the Knesset and after his party failed to reach the threshold in the election of April 2019. In that sense, Bennett’s achievement far exceeds that of Liberman, or anyone else. It is, in fact, a typical move by Bennett, who has proved himself to be the great gambler of Israeli politics, repeatedly playing for all or nothing — and winning more often than not. Seizing the opportunity to become premier in these extraordinary circumstances was the biggest gamble to date in his career, but the incentive was clearly irresistible. The alternative was to be just another candidate for the top job, having to fight, maneuver and ‘climb to the top of the greasy pole’ (in Disraeli’s famous phrase) after years of struggle — if at all.
Thanks to this short-cut, Bennett’s options are much improved. If, come the next election, he is perceived to have done a reasonably good job, most of his voters will forgive him for reneging on his promise to support Netanyahu — and he will replace those right-wing voters who desert him with many more centre-right voters who will be attracted to him. He can then ascend naturally into the role of leader of the right-wing bloc, repair his relations with the Haredim and complete his long-term strategy of succeeding Netanyahu. If, however, this government — or Bennett personally — is judged a failure, he will probably be wiped out in the next election. These are big stakes, but that seems to be the way Bennett likes to play.
Also playing for all or nothing is Mansour Abbas, in an attempt to revolutionise Israeli-Arab politics and, by extension, the entire relationship between Jews and Arabs in Israel. Merely joining the government was a revolutionary step, but if he and his party, Ra’am, cannot point to real achievements, both budgetary and legislative, for his constituency, the danger remains that it will be seen as a one-off event — and a failure. Bennett, Lapid and the rest of the coalition leadership are well aware of this danger and want to ensure that Ra’am chalks up some important gains, but Abbas is under massive pressure from within his party and constituency. This creates a parallel danger that he will over-play his hand and trigger a reaction against him and Ra’am on the part of the right-wing coalition parties. So far, he has managed to maintain the balance, but it has been very difficult and is likely to remain so.
Gideon Sa’ar has remained largely in the background, playing a slow and quiet game. He has achieved his first goal of bringing Netanyahu down and is now focused on the next one — of knocking him out of politics altogether. That will enable Sa’ar to present himself as the new leader of the right, whether via New Hope or through rejoining Likud. He is relying on his credentials within Likud and his personal integrity, but it is also essential for him to record legislative or political achievements, to ensure that New Hope does better in the next election. A merger with Bennett is unlikely — they are better off pursuing different electoral niches.
Benny Gantz is an essential component of this coalition, despite being the only party in it that was also in the previous coalition. As noted, Gantz’s abuse at the hands of Netanyahu wins him points — and a surprisingly large number of votes in the most recent election. However, his political future will likely be determined by his success as Defence Minister. If Gaza and South Lebanon remain quiet, the credit will accrue primarily to him. On domestic issues, he is maintaining his centrist-liberal line — making a merger with Lapid more logical, unless he still harbours prime ministerial ambitions. In that case, he must keep an eye on Gadi Eisenkot and Gabi Ashkenazi, both former chiefs of staff and hence potential rivals.
The leaders of the left-wing parties are not key players, but they are certainly important. Having voluntarily entered a government in which they are a minority, their goal must be to demonstrate that they are a counterweight that prevents extremist/ right-wing initiatives. Beyond that, they will seek to realise specific points on their agenda and to prove themselves capable ministers who run their departments well and seek to serve the entire public.
In this context, Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz is most prominent as Health Minister and has much the hardest job — but also the one with the most political potential, if he succeeds in it. Tamar Zandberg will make environmental issues a major focus and is lining up ministerial allies to help her. Labour leader Meirav MIchaeli, at Transport, must register some short-term achievements there, as well as some progress on the Palestinian front.
- WHY Netanyahu and Likud lost power
It is a truism of democratic politics that elections are lost and not won. Never was that more valid than in the series of four elections Israel held between April 2019 and March 2021: nobody won any of them, but there were plenty of losers — first and foremost, the incumbent Prime Minister since 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud, the party he has led since 2006. To lose one election may be attributed to misfortune or other transient factors, but to fail to win four successive times — and to decisively lose seats in the fourth — points to much more fundamental reasons.
There can be little doubt that, just as Likud’s success over the years — including its major achievements in these recent elections, winning 30 or more seats every time — are attributable first and foremost to Netanyahu, so too its failure to clinch victory by building a coalition majority after any of the series-of-four elections is equally attributable to Netanyahu. Each of these elections — and each one to a greater degree than the preceding one and most emphatically the last of them — were effectively referenda over Netanyahu personally. His popular support gradually eroded, until it became possible to put together a coalition that had virtually no common ground, other than its fierce and total opposition to Netanyahu remaining in office. That glue sufficed to create the ‘impossible’ coalition outlined above.
Leading this process of eroding Netanyahu’s popular support were specific individuals who also had very little in common — other than intense antipathy towards Netanyahu, stemming from a breakdown in once-close relations between each of them and the Likud leader. This relationship of dislike/ hatred developed and festered over years and even decades, until it was deployed at a critical political juncture, to achieve devastating effect.
The foremost example of this move from close aide to bitter enemy is Avigdor Liberman, who was an early supporter of and aide to Netanyahu in the 1990s and was rewarded with senior positions in Likud and, ultimately (when Netanyahu became premier for the first time, in 1996), with the post of Director-General of the Prime Minister’s Office. Liberman resigned within 18 months, against the background of a political scandal, and was subsequently unable to regain his standing within Likud — because, it has been claimed, his return was blocked by Netanyahu.
Whatever the case, the result was that Liberman founded Yisrael Beiteinu, a Russian-immigrant party, and launched a long career in parliament and government that has far exceeded all objective expectations, bringing him the most senior portfolios of Foreign Affairs, Defence and now Finance. This career saw a roller-coaster relationship with Netanyahu that included alliances, mergers, break-ups and resignations but, throughout, Liberman nursed his grudge. In 2018 he brought down Netanyahu’s coalition and then, in both elections of 2019, utilised his party’s hold on the balance of power to block Netanyahu’s path to a coalition majority.
The story repeats itself with regard to Gideon Sa’ar, albeit with different details. Sa’ar also joined Likud in his youth, worked his way up and rose to prominence and popularity within the party. Precisely his prominence and popularity persuaded Netanyahu to block his further progress, from 2015 onwards. Sa’ar took ‘time out’ from politics for a couple of years, then returned and reconfirmed his popularity within the party in an internal primary — and even had the temerity to run against Netanyahu for the leadership, losing 28-72 but positioning himself as the leading candidate in the race for the succession.
However, by 2020 Netanyahu had turned Likud into a private fiefdom. Faced with Netanyahu’s ‘personalisation’ of Likud, his deliberate double-crossing of Benny Gantz in the ‘National Unity’ coalition that Netanyahu reluctantly agreed to form after the March 2020 election, and with Netanyahu’s trial on three counts of bribery under way — Sa’ar burnt his bridges by leaving Likud and, with a band of fellow-rebels, establishing a new right-wing party, New Hope. Although the initial surge of support for this venture quickly faded, the six seats that it won in March 2021 were just sufficient to prevent Netanyahu achieving a coalition majority.
Naftali Bennett is another former senior Netanyahu aide who, together with his political partner Ayelet Shaked, fell foul of the boss — or, more plausibly, the formidable Mrs Netanyahu — and left their posts in the Prime Minister’s Office. After a successful and lucrative detour into high-tech, Bennett rejoined with Shaked to conquer from within and reshape the Jewish Home party in 2013. Their success allowed them to form an alliance with an even more successful neophyte politician, Yair Lapid, and to impose themselves and their conditions on Netanyahu after the 2013 election. But the wily veteran soon turned the tables on them, dismissing Lapid and cutting Bennett down to size. Further political humiliations, many of them enabled by Bennett’s impetuousness, followed over the next few years, but Bennett gradually garnered political, parliamentary and ministerial experience. His biggest disaster was in the first election of 2019, when his new party — Yamina — failed to cross the threshold and gain representation, but he received an new lease of political life when another election quickly followed.
The March 2021 election saw Bennett finally break loose from his partnership with the extreme religious right; while remaining firmly in the right-wing camp, he was finally able to make his own decisions. This split resulted in Yamina winning only seven seats in the election but, by sheer luck, the results placed the balance of power in his hands. Once it became clear that, even with Yamina, Netanyahu could not form a coalition, Bennett adopted the line that the country and economy could not tolerate another election. In fact he was deep in negotiations with Lapid and not only joined an anti-Netanyahu coalition, but emerged as premier in the first two years of a ‘rotation’ agreement with Lapid..
Benny Gantz is a much more recent victim of Netanyahu’s duplicity. His dealings with Netanyahu when he was chief-of-staff from 2011 -2015 may have left scars, but Netanyahu’s attitude towards him from the moment he entered politics in early 2019, through three election campaigns and culminating with Netanyahu’s reneging on key elements of the coalition and rotation agreement with Gantz, all combined to turn Gantz into a determined and dangerous enemy. Netanyahu effectively ensured that Gantz would be a pillar of the anti-Netanyahu front in the 2021 election and would firmly reject anything Netanyahu might offer him during the weeks of tense negotiations.
Indeed, Netanyahu’s duplicity vis-à-vis Gantz in 2020 can be said to have been sufficient, in and of itself, to pave the way to his fall in 2021. When, in desperation, Netanyahu offered Bennett a rotation agreement and was even prepared for Bennett to be premier first, Bennett turned him down — on the grounds that not only could Netanyahu not deliver a coalition majority at all, but even if he did, Bennett did not trust Netanyahu to make good on his commitments.
The moral of Netanyahu’s long political career is that he dug his own grave. Despite his prodigious talents and many achievements, he has throughout lacked the human touch — the ability and desire to display gratitude towards close aides and colleagues or to inspire their loyalty. He has used people and then discarded them and has thus accumulated enemies over the years — until these eventually found the opportunity to combine to overthrow him.
It should be noted that Netanyahu’s trial, the criminal charges against him and the entire issue of the supposed ‘crusade’ against him and his family mounted by the ‘left-liberal elite, media and judicial system’ are not part of the foregoing analysis. For his rivals on the right, including even Sa’ar, whether or not Netanyahu will be found guilty is an important but separate issue: they believe that even if he never broke the letter of the law, he is unfit to remain premier.
- WHAT is the Bennett-Lapid government seeking to do…
Because of its unique composition, but even more because of the circumstances in which it came into being, the Bennett-Lapid government has an agenda unlike any previous government.
Each of the eight parties in this government has an ideology which it seeks to promote, a constituency that it wants to look after and a legislative agenda that it wishes to realise. But most of the items on the parties’ wish lists have opponents not on the opposition benches — as is normal — but around the cabinet table. Therefore, each party has signed up to this coalition in the full knowledge that much of what it wants to do will not be possible. But — and this is the flip side of the same coin — each party understands that not only must it achieve at least some of the goals it is committed to, but it must also help ensure that each of the other coalition partners also achieves at least some of its goals — even if it is unhappy with this wider agenda.
Of course, this state of affairs exists in every coalition and Israeli politics has always operated under these ‘rules’. But never has the spectrum of policy proposals been so broad and diverse. To make matters more difficult, the leadership and much of the rank and file of the coalition parties are novices in both parliament and government and are having to learn on the job, under enormous pressure.
In light of this, the answer to the seemingly innocent question of “what does the current government seek to achieve” is actually very radical. This government’s goals are
- First and foremost, to survive. With a majority of one, this is inherently challenging, but the greatest difficulty stems from the splits and disagreements built into the coalition and the need to repeatedly persuade parties to vote in favour of policies they are opposed to, or vote against policies they support, simply to maintain coalition unity.
- The government bills itself as a “Change Government”. Not only does it want to do different things, it wants to do things differently from its predecessor. It wants to speak and act in a different spirit – less divisive and abrasive, more inclusive and comradely. That’s a tall order, but it is fair to say that, at least so far, the parties are making a big effort to realise this ambition.
- To govern. Since the end of 2018, there has been governmental paralysis, symbolized by the inability to legislate a state budget for either 2019 or 2020. Indeed, governance was in decline throughout the 2015-2019 government, even when it had a safe majority, because Netanyahu increasingly followed a policy of avoiding conflict and “not rocking the boat”. Merely getting back to regular governance patterns – such as making appointments to key positions left unfilled for years – will be a big improvement.
- As noted, every coalition party will have to support legislative initiatives that realise items from the wish list of other coalition members, so that each party can show its constituency why joining this government was justified and worthwhile.
- Last, but hardly least, the Bennett-Lapid government must wrestle with two huge challenges inherited from the previous government — Covid and Iran. The idea that Covid is over, thanks to the vaccination programme, has proved an illusion and the need to deal with a renewed surge of infections is proving as difficult for this government as the previous waves were for its predecessor. As for Iran, the nuclear threat is growing rapidly and this government may be faced with truly critical decisions.
- …and WHAT is it trying to avoid
To say that a government is trying to avoid being defeated in a vote in parliament, or that it is working hard to avoid a disastrous split in its own ranks, would normally be obvious.
But not with this government. The combination of a wafer-thin parliamentary majority and fundamental disagreements over many issues between its own components makes the Bennett-Lapid government the most vulnerable ever. Almost every parliamentary session brings a threat of being defeated in a vote and, although under the law any specific defeat (other than a no-confidence motion or the budget) does not endanger the government’s survival, each vote lost is a dent in its armour and a serial loss of votes could result in its collapse from within. This is especially the case because one or other coalition party, or one or more members of a party, may threaten to abstain or even vote against on any specific issue — as has already been amply demonstrated in the first weeks of the government’s existence.
In other words, just keeping its head above water is a daily struggle for this government and avoiding tactical defeats and internal splits is a constant challenge. The fierce parliamentary war launched by Likud and its allies against the coalition, using filibusters and repeated all-night sessions to wear down the coalition MKs, has made the conduct of even regular parliamentary business exceptionally fraught. The two sides are still locked in an unprecedented fight over the composition and chairing of Knesset committees, in addition to constant clashes on the Knesset floor.
Over and above the parliamentary ‘trench warfare’, the coalition has longer-term and more strategic goals that it can achieve simply by surmounting the threats facing it. In political terms, there is a fascinating ’race against time’ underway, between two processes. On the one hand, it seems likely, if not inevitable, that the coalition must eventually collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. On the other, the internal pressures within Likud are steadily mounting, as the senior personalities in the party — Yisrael Katz, Nir Barkat, Yuli Edelstein — launch increasingly public campaigns for the leadership. The façade that these efforts are directed to the day after Netanyahu decides to step down is steadily slipping, as the feeling grows among both leadership and rank-and-file that a change of leadership is necessary, even overdue.
From the coalition’s point of view – and especially from that of its right-wing parties and their leaders – it is essential to outlast Likud in this race. Once the internal explosion in Likud takes place, the political arena will change shape quickly and dramatically – and then it will be ‘safe’ for the coalition to dissolve, having completed the main task for which it was created.
Beyond that personal and party-political goal, the coalition partners have a joint interest in avoiding a split along ethnic grounds which would lead Ra’am to withdraw from the government. Not only would this remove the coalition’s Knesset majority, but it would also negate the achievement of having an Israeli-Arab party in government and thereby set back the process whereby the Israeli-Arab population is being integrated into mainstream political activity.
Ultimately, all the dangers that face the coalition lead to the same result: if this government falls before having recorded substantial achievements, all its component parties will be punished by voters at the next election, and many of them will not be returned to the Knesset. That is the strongest incentive to make this weird coalition work, against all normal political logic.
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